Friday morning marks the start of something of a new era for KTM’s MotoGP project, as the covers come off not only Brad Binder and Pol Espargaro replacement Miguel Oliviera’s factory Red Bull KTM machines at headquarters, but also as the pair are joined by the new-look Tech3 team of Danilo Petrucci and Iker Lecuona.
By anyone’s books, 2020 was an exceptional season for the Austrian manufacturer.
Only its fourth season in the premier class, it was the year that the KTM RC16s finally made their presence known by taking three wins from the shortened campaign’s 14 races, with both Binder and Oliveira (twice) visiting the top step of the podium.
KTM also racked up an impressive number of podium finishes to highlight how much it’s found not just speed but consistency too, as Espargaro finished in the top three five times and ended the championship fifth overall.
It’s perhaps not a huge surprise to see the firm performing so well, though. KTM traditionally doesn’t go racing to finish second, with a long history of dominance in classes stretching from 125s and Moto3 to Dakar, MXGP and Supercross.
It’s a race team funded by a motorbike manufacturer rather than a constructor that happens to go racing, and given its ample additional financial backing from energy drinks giant Red Bull, it was a foolish person who ever bet against KTM becoming a MotoGP race winner – even if no one quite expected it to happen so quickly.
However, while 2020 might have been an impressive season for the squad, it came just ahead of a significant reshuffling for 2021.
The departure of Espargaro, a veteran racer joining satellite squad Tech3 in the form of Petrucci, and the promotion of Oliveira from privateer to factory means that while KTM is keeping three of its four MotoGP riders, plenty of pieces are moving around in the puzzle.
And with big changes comes a big challenge. More than anything, the mission for KTM in 2021 needs to be to maintain its consistency, if the successful streak of last year is to continue long into the future.
It would be all too easy to assume that three wins last year means that the project is now done – a fully-baked title-contending motorbike ready to take on the experience of Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Ducati every single weekend at every circuit.
But the reality is somewhat different, given that 2020 was far from a normal season.
Sure, KTM made a huge step forward – there’s no denying that the RC16 that turned up to pre-season testing last February at Sepang was more revolutionary than evolutionary.
Built around a strong engine package – something that the KTM team has done well since the very beginning – last season’s RC16 also had variations to its frame and swingarm that didn’t necessarily make the bike much stronger in any one area, but helped it close in on its rivals across the board.
But while its riders might have had an impressive year, it’s important to not mistake that for title-challenging ability just yet.
The reasoning for that is easy, too – it’s presented in the numbers. Sure, there are some tracks where KTM did exceptionally well (like Brno, where Binder took the brand’s first ever win, and its home track of the Red Bull Ring, where Oliveira and Espargaro finished first and third), but there are others where things weren’t as rosy.
One bike inside the top six from two races at Jerez, a best result of 10th from the first race at Misano and mediocre results at Aragon all hint at one thing: the RC16, while fast, isn’t quite ready to perform at every circuit.
And in fact, KTM’s success might even have been further amplified by a calendar full of KTM test tracks and lacking many of the venues where its previous bikes were less forgiving.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say that 2021 won’t quite be the easy sailing that some assume based – so how do the bosses at its Mattighofen base go about making sure that things don’t slide backwards?
Well, they’ve taken one immediate step that should aid that significantly: replacing Espargaro with the only person who should have even been considered for the role, double KTM race winner Oliveira.
The Portuguese rider finished off 2020 in style with a dominant victory on home soil, and his transition from satellite squad at Tech3 to factory one will be seamless thanks in large part to the democratic structure of KTM’s programme.
Sure, he might have been a privateer last year, but he did it on factory-spec machinery, got the same upgrades as the factory team, and spent just as long in the presence of the works engineers post-session.
What that has ensured is that not only will Oliveira be jumping from a bike he’s already familiar with thanks to already being on the latest machinery, he’ll also be riding a machine that his feedback has been instrumental in developing.
Oliveira will be aided by the retention of Binder on the other side of the garage as well. Bitter rivals at times, the pair nonetheless enjoy as strong a relationship as team-mates can thanks to years of experience working together. Their Moto2 days mean they know how to cooperate on building a better bike, and it should ensure an orderly handover from the departing Espargaro.
In the Tech3 box, the arrival of Petrucci is likely the biggest change that KTM will face this season. However, that’s not to say that the Italian’s arrival is a bad thing. He brings fresh ideas and a lot of experience from Ducati, and joins a team environment where his easy-going nature will thrive.
That experience might be an important thing for KTM, too, if it’s hoping to turn the bike into a more consistent contender while retaining the speed it found last year.
Petrucci in many ways is returning to the role he enjoyed at Pramac Racing, as a satellite rider-cum-tester, the first man to get new parts to try before they’re risked at the factory garage.
That’s not really a position that KTM has ever enjoyed before, but it’s one that should relieve some of the pressure both on the orange bikes and on the test team. And it might well be the key to yet more rapid improvements in 2021 as KTM looks to maintain the momentum in what could well be another topsy-turvy year.